At 2,100 meters above sea level, on this tongue of artificial snow open to all the winds from which alpine skiers soar, the cold is a very concrete reality. In recent days, the temperature has indeed reached – 25 ° C in Yanqing, 90 km northwest of Beijing.
The feeling, on the other hand, willingly exceeded -30°C. Extreme conditions, which could continue in the days to come, or even worsen until the end of the Olympic Games this weekend.
→ READ. Beijing Olympics: in ski jumping, the delicate flight of snow birds
The goal for athletes is therefore to expose themselves to these conditions for as short a time as possible. In alpine skiing, the performance lasts less than two minutes. At the top of the slopes, a ” Team Hospitality ” has been installed. In this heated hut, skiers can change and continue their warm-up only to leave at the last moment.
“Cold exposes the human body to significant stress and higher energy consumption. Don’t forget to eat and hydrate properly.explains Stéphane Bulle, doctor for the French alpine ski teams.
Burning on the cheeks
At – 20°C and at 120 km/h, the rare parts of the body in the open air are exposed to burns. To counter them, skiers use tape strips that they apply to their cheeks. Parades that we have seen in other sports at these Olympics, such as biathlon.
“There is also a risk of ventilation, adds the doctor. Inhaling very cold air irritates the bronchial tubes. This hyperventilation can cause athletes to cough. It is an exhibition on which it is more difficult to act. »
There is no temperature limit for an alpine ski race to be held, but conditions that are too impassable can lead to postponements. “It’s a story of common sense. Beyond the danger to the body, everything breaks when the temperature is too low. The skis deform »notes Stéphane Bulle.
At the end of last week, the organizing committee warned that the Olympic weather forecasters would share their data with the technical experts of the international federations of each discipline, “which determine, if necessary, reprogramming”.
→ READ. Beijing Olympics: the first flakes of Zhangjiakou
As for Nordic skiing (cross-country skiing, biathlon), races can be postponed if the mercury drops below -20°C. “If it’s really apocalyptic, the trials will be postponed. You have to prepare for it, so as not to waste energy unnecessarily”warns the women’s biathlon coach, Frédéric Jean.
On Sunday, February 13, the pursuits were able to take place despite heavy snowfall and intermittent gusts. In the middle of the race, agents regularly cleared the snow from the launch pad with blowers.
Under the suit, biathletes wear underpants and undershirts. They also received heated socks. Crucial part in this sport where you have to be agile with the rifle, the fingers must stay warm, while maintaining their agility. During the mixed relay on Saturday February 5, Émilien Jacquelin regretted the choice of thicker gloves, which had weakened his dexterity and had put him in difficulty on the shooting range.
So everyone is trying to find a solution. “Me, I added a retractable mitten that I can take off to shoot, and that I put back on when I ski to protect myself from the wind”says double medalist Anaïs Chevalier-Bouchet. “The important thing is to have warm clothes, and to pay particular attention to warming up, but there is not much else to do”, notes the Finnish coach of the Nordic combined, Petter Kukkonen. In cross-country skiing, the French have received valuable advice from the army to fight both physically and psychologically against the cold.
If there have already been first postponements, they have been due to wind, snow or fog, and not cold. On Sunday, slopestyle skiing qualifications were postponed to the next day due to heavy snowfall and wind. An alpine ski downhill training has been cancelled. Athletes can’t always tame the elements.